New York (Brussels Morning) The question of how the media should cover, and is covering, the Biden administration following four years of Donald Trump in the White House has drawn more attention recently. An influential article by Dana Milbank in The Washington Post asserted that President Biden has drawn more negative coverage than his predecessor. Others have questioned the methodology cited by Milbank. On balance, it is difficult to determine whether Biden has been treated worse by the media than Trump, not least because partisans always believe their candidate is being treated unfairly by the media.
The question of whether the media has been kinder to Trump or Biden may be impossible to answer, but it is also the wrong question to ask. The more relevant question is how should the media cover the Republican-led effort to roll back American democracy, and to what extent should that frame their coverage of politics in general and Biden in particular. This does not mean that the media should give Biden a free ride. There is plenty to criticise about the Biden administration — the President’s legislative agenda is stalled; the Democrats have not used their power to sufficiently protect voting rights; Biden’s age is an issue that cannot be ignored; foreign policy, under Biden or any president, must be discussed and scrutinised.
The dilemma confronting the media is that being uncritical of the current administration because the Democrats’ failure could lead to Republican victories in 2022 and 2024, and thus significant further erosion of democracy, does a disservice to the American people who have a right to know what the administration is doing. However, ignoring the authoritarian impulses of today’s GOP is also withholding important information from the American people.
Fortunately, there are some things media can do. The first is to avoid suggesting there is any kind of equivalency between the two parties on the issue of democracy. For example, the events of January 6th must be covered as the insurrection that it was, and efforts by Republican politicians to suggest otherwise should be covered as complicity in that insurrection, and not simply as a matter of partisan difference. Similarly, voting rights should be covered accurately — as a dispute between one party that wants to limit access to the franchise making American elections less free and fair because that is the way they believe they can win elections, and the other party that believes in democracy. Clearly this sounds partisan, but sometimes reality sounds partisan.
Another important way the media can strike the balance is to cover Donald Trump, particularly his likely next presidential campaign, in the appropriate context. It is not unusual that, as the first year of a presidential term winds up, speculation about who might run next time around for president is a topic for journalists, pundits and kibitzers. It is considerably more unusual, in fact without any real precedent in modern times, for a defeated president to seek the office again, not that there is anything illegal or even untoward about doing just that.
Donald Trump, as the media knows, is no ordinary candidate or even a former president, for all that. He is a defeated president who spread disinformation aimed at undermining a free and fair election, who at the very least encouraged violent demonstrators seeking to disrupt the certification of that election and who continues to insist that he was the real winner of the 2020 election while supporting efforts to make it easier for his party to steal the next election. Ignoring that in favour of riffing about what states he will target in 2024 or what the latest-and way too early-poll numbers show, amounts to concealing fundamentally important context about Trump and the 2024 election. In other words, treating Trump as just a normal candidate strategising about how to win a normal election amounts to abetting the authoritarian mode that apparently dominates today’s GOP.
Similarly, efforts to compartmentalise Republican politicians who opine earnestly on policy, but who remain faithful to the MAGA cult and the lies about everything from vaccines to elections that define it, are also misguided. When a Republican lawmaker is in the media giving his or her views on the Build Back Better plan, voting rights or anything else, the media should give viewers and readers some context. That could be, for example in the form of a chyron underneath the image of a speaker explaining his or her role in the disinformation campaign around the election or in efforts to minimise the gravity of the insurrection. (Chyron: caption superimposed usually over the lower part of a video image — as during a news broadcast). In other words, while the efforts of the GOP to roll back democracy and overturn a presidential election do not need to be the story all the time, critical context should not be overlooked.
The American media has been covering politics as a kind of horserace, giving equal times and credence to both sides, for so long that it is very hard to change. However, the overarching story in the US now is the threat to democracy posed by the GOP. Ignoring that in favour of false equivalencies and continuing to treat both sides as roughly equal and comparable is not just lazy and bad for democracy. Such an apporoach, by overlooking the true nature and goals of the Republican Party, is also deeply partisan.